Former Kansas University basketball standout Bill Bridges, a three-time all-Big Eight selection and All-American his senior year in 1961, has died at the age of 76.
The 6-foot-6, 230-pound rebounding machine died Sept. 25 at Cedars-Sinai hospital in California following a battle with cancer.
“Bill was a great person, an incredible person, one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. He was a wonderful man with a great, sweet spirit about him,” former KU coach Ted Owens said of the Hobbs, New Mexico native who was recruited to KU by Dick Harp and Jerry Waugh in 1957.
“He was the finest rebounder for his size of anybody I’ve ever seen. He taught me a lot about rebounding. He had an incredible career in the NBA (three-time all-star), winning the championship with Rick Barry and that bunch," Owens added.
Bridges —he averaged an amazing 13.9 rebounds a game in his three seasons as a Jayhawk (second highest rebound average in school history) and scored 1,028 points in just 78 games played — played 13 years in the NBA and won a championship with Golden State in 1975.
He averaged a double-double over the course of his pro career (11.9 points, 11.9 rebounds) and was twice named to the NBA’s all defensive team.
“He was 6-6, about 230 and that was long before weightlifting. He was truly one of our greatest players,” Owens said of Bridges, who grabbed 30 rebounds against Northwestern in 1960, third most in a game in school history. Owens was a KU assistant coach in 1960-61 when Bridges helped protect the Jayhawk bench as a fight broke out at the end of Missouri’s 79-76 win over KU in Columbia.
“He probably saved us down at Missouri my first year. You can still watch it on the Internet, the fight with Missouri. Bill cleared out about half of a court down there. Nobody (MU fans who stormed court) wanted a part of Bill,” Owens reflected with a laugh.
Owens offered Bridges a job on his coaching staff at KU.
“It was at the end of his playing career. I told him I could offer $9,000,” Owens said. “Of course he said he couldn’t afford that, but I would have loved to have him on our staff. He was a terrific guy, a great friend, one of our truly great players.”
KU grad Dana Anderson, who is one of KU’s more prominent boosters, remembers meeting Bridges many years ago in Santa Monica, California, where Anderson worked and Bridges lived.
“He saw my KU tags on my car one day, walked in the office and asked, ‘Who is the person with the car with KU on it?’” Anderson recalled. “That’s how we met. I knew who he was immediately, of course. We became friends. We had some good talks philosophically about race. He was a really neat person intellectually.”
Physically ... “he had the biggest hands of any human being I’ve ever met, mammoth,” Anderson said. “Much bigger than Wilt (Chamberlain). His arms and hands were just a knack for rebounds. At one point he was leading rebounder among all forwards in the pros. He had sturdy and large shoulder and a big body. His arms and hands were huge and he knew how to use them.”
Anderson, who traveled with Bridges to Lawrence in 2004 for Bill’s jersey retirement ceremony, indicated the player was thrilled to be so honored by his alma mater.
Cindy Fraser, who was Bridges' partner of many years, indicated Bridges was “very proud to be a Jayhawk. People would introduce themselves to him and he’d go into the Rock Chalk cheer. He just loved KU.”
She indicated a possible moment of silence at Friday’s Late Night in the Phog “would be perfect. He didn’t want a service. He was a very quiet man.”
After reflection, she knows of one other thing that would please him.
“In thinking about it, I’m sure Bill would love a last ‘Rock Chalk’ in his honor,” Fraser said.